Leading by her instincts
Three years ago, when a Democratic state legislator tried to get bipartisan support for investigating charges of unethical conduct by a senior Republican official, only one member of the GOP answered the call: Sarah Palin.
Palin pursued the allegations -- as well as ethics charges against another top GOP official -- so vigorously that both had to leave office.
The public acclaim that followed helped propel her into the governor’s office a year later with promises of reform and a more open, accountable government that would stand up to entrenched interests, including the big oil companies.
Yet a strange thing happened on the ethics issue once Palin became governor: She appeared to lose interest in completing the task of legislating comprehensive reform, some who supported the cleanup say.
The ethics bill she offered was so incomplete that its supporters had to undertake a significant rewrite. Moreover, when it came to building support for the bill, politicians in both parties say the new governor was often unaccountably absent from the fray.
And the seeming paradox of the ethics reform fight -- the combination of bold, even courageous readiness to take on a tough issue, coupled with a tendency to drift away from the nitty-gritty follow-through -- appears to be a recurrent theme of her record. Some lawmakers were so perplexed by her absence from a recent debate over sending oil rebate checks to Alaskans, for example, that they sported buttons at the state Capitol reading “Where’s Sarah?”
A spokesman for the governor’s office rejects such criticism. Bill McAllister, Palin’s press secretary, said: “She has always been sufficiently informed and engaged. . . . In just two years in office, she accomplished more than most governors in their entire careers.”
Even her critics credit Palin with a major role in pushing a state known for its relaxed approach to political ethics into a long-overdue housecleaning. And Palin has pushed hard to make oil companies pay more for access to the state’s oil and gas reserves.
At the same time, she has fallen short of her proclaimed goals in other areas, especially concerning how she governs.
Her administration has not been marked by the transparency she promised: She invoked executive privilege in refusing to disclose information about one ethics case, and last week she moved to hobble a legislative inquiry into her role in the firing of a state public safety official.
Several legislators also say the governor’s office is not a place for open debate: Palin does not tolerate much dissent, they say, sometimes cutting off relations with those deemed unhelpful or critical.
And she shows only marginal interest in crafting policy proposals and getting them passed, these critics say.
“Her ethics proposal had to be beefed up substantially with very basic additions,” said state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who tried to get the governor’s attention on ethics and other issues.
It lacked such long-needed provisions as language making legislators subject to prosecution for bribery if they exchanged votes for campaign contributions. To Gara and to some others, including Republicans who have often supported the governor, their experience on the ethics bill has proven disconcertingly similar to their experience with Palin on other issues.
“When it comes to the real work of crafting policy, she’s often not there,” Gara said. He acknowledged her broad accomplishments, but added: “I don’t know if she’s disinterested in details or not comfortable with them, but the bottom line is: She is not truly a hands-on governor.”
During the recent debate over how much of the state’s annual oil royalties to rebate to the state’s citizens in the form of individual checks -- a highly sensitive issue in Alaska -- Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature said Palin took little part in the final stages of the discussion.
In interviews, more than a dozen Alaska politicians described Palin as a master at burnishing her image and building a popular base. She won statewide applause for selling the state jet, rejecting a big security entourage while driving herself, and firing the chef at the executive mansion.
No one questions her readiness to fight for cleaner government either. After she agreed in 2005 to help Democratic legislator Eric Croft get an independent investigation of state Atty. Gen. Gregg Renkes, she immediately incurred the wrath of the party establishment. The same thing had happened a year earlier, when she raised conflict-of-interest allegations against the state GOP chairman, Randy Ruedrich, who had sat with her on the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Palin was vindicated in both cases: Ruedrich resigned from the commission and paid a $12,000 ethics fine. The attorney general also resigned and received a reprimand.
A spokesman for Ruedrich and the state party said that the past was not a factor and that Ruedrich was backing the McCain-Palin ticket. Renkes could not be reached for comment.
Croft, who is running for mayor of Anchorage and backing the Barack Obama-Joe Biden ticket, said he was impressed with Palin’s willingness to join him in the case involving the attorney general.
“She got it right away” and never backed down, Croft said. “Her sense was that this was wrong and that she had to speak out.”
Many officials are less positive, however, about her record of working with the Legislature and running the state government.
Republican state Sen. Fred Dyson, a friend and fellow reformer who praises Palin for taking up the issue, acknowledged that she was not fully engaged in the details of the ethics bill and that some legislators had been rankled by her lack of engagement in other issues as well.
Still, he points out, her popularity in Alaska remains undiminished.
Other legislators say that the governor has been so focused on her own priorities that she has been unwilling to consider other significant matters -- including the state’s poor ranking in providing health insurance to children. Alaska ranks near the bottom of the states in making children from lower-middle-income families eligible for a government insurance program.
She used the line-item veto this year to cut funding for $268 million in capital projects from spending bills, including money for a senior citizens center and batting cages for the Ketchikan Little League. At the same time, the Anchorage Daily News reported, she preserved $2 million for an academic conference highlighting arguments that global warming isn’t threatening the survival of polar bears.
A former associate director of the governor’s Washington office, Larry Persily, said that some of the governor’s problems resulted from the fact that she “underestimated exponentially how much more complex state government is than the city of Wasilla.”
Palin is smart but was “never deeply engaged,” he said.
Though she had good instincts with the public, her approach to legislators and fellow elected officials was often counterproductive, he said. For example, he said, when she made a four-day visit to Washington in February, she did not meet with any members of the congressional delegation.
Similarly, when she reversed her campaign decision and finally killed the “bridge to nowhere,” the much-ridiculed project to connect Ketchikan with the island airport that serves it, neither the mayor of the town nor the congressional delegation was notified in advance.
“When she makes a decision, she wants it executed immediately,” Persily said. “In politics, sometimes ‘immediately’ is not the most productive way to do it.”
But McAllister, the governor’s press secretary, praised her attention to detail. He noted that during her second year in office, she met with legislators in groups of three to go over budget concerns for each district. “That shows her willingness to engage even at the level of minutiae,” he said.
Republican Lyda Green, president of the Alaska Senate, who has clashed frequently with the governor, said: “It has been very difficult for her to accept ‘no,’ and after a ‘no’ was spoken, going forward after that amicably was very difficult. After that, you didn’t get in. No conversations. She would very much slam you in her next press conference.”
Green, who represents the Wasilla area, is retiring from the Legislature at the end of this year, citing the conflict she has had with Palin as one reason she’s stepping down.
McAllister dismisses Green’s criticism as “bitter personal resentment.”
Palin has also stirred controversy over her abrupt firing of prominent officials. State legislators were upset earlier this year, for instance, when she dismissed the state’s well-liked public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan.
The governor agreed to a legislative inquiry by an independent investigator who was going to probe whether Palin had abused her authority in seeking Monegan’s precipitous dismissal. The Palins were angry because Monegan failed to fire a state trooper in the midst of a fierce custody battle the trooper was having with the governor’s sister. For years, the governor and her family had complained that the trooper was abusive and dangerous.
Since being chosen as John McCain’s running mate, however, Palin has started a legal maneuver to prevent that inquiry from going forward.
State Rep. Andrea Doll of Juneau, a Democrat, says she thinks the governor is learning from her mistakes. “One thing she learned is that you are not a lone ranger -- you can’t go marching off, ignoring the people at the legislative front lines,” she said. “To get something done, you need more than just the public applauding wildly.”
Times staff writers Chuck Neubauer and Marjorie Miller and researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.